Vaesen by Free League Publishing is a Tabletop RPG set in the dark and foreboding setting of rural Nothern Europe in the nineteenth century (1800s). Using the Year Zero Engine game system, investigators will find themselves nose to nose with macabre, enigmatic, and terrifying myths from Nordic folklore. But is this system right for you? Lets talk about it.
Vaesen is a surprisingly fun and thematic tabletop game that punches above its weight in terms of style, flare, and dramatics. The huge majority, I’d say 95%, of the game hinges on the skill and ingenuity of your GM. Players are locked behind an extremely simple D6 dice pool system
(roll 1-7 dice and see if any of them are a 6), that is more fickle than you’d want in a mystery TTRPG where tensions and emotions can run high and sully an otherwise fun experience because of poor luck. With a great GM, this game has no limits. With a moderate or fledgling GM, prepare for some headaches.
What Is Vaesen?
Vaesen is a game about a group of investigators (the PCs) who are part of a secret society that solve mysteries through mythos-drenched Europe. The term Vaesen is an umbrella category for hidden magical creatures from folklore, such as undead or fey, who might terrorize or otherwise exist alongside common mortals as they live their day to day lives. The Sight is a power all investigators share that allows them to see Vaesen, where common folks may not—this sight is usually brought on by some trauma or exposure to Vaesen before a character becomes an investigator.
There are various stages to the game, as written, that give players a narrative jumping-off point for each investigation, but on the whole the only important part is a preliminary chance to gather information about a job before setting off to face whatever problem has arisen. Though this is the most unique and interesting narrative mechanic in the game, it’s really easy to screw up and walk away with little-to-no information and few advantages thanks to the Year Zero Engine.
The game is also built around the idea of a ticking clock. Each Vaesen the party comes across will have various stages it exists in, ranging from barely a problem to ripping the nails out of the wall to kill people with, and the faster the investigators uncover the mystery, the safer they may be. Which… I’ll talk about more in the “Falling Flat” section that follows.
Year Zero Engine – What?
The system itself is the Free League Publication game system called Year Zero Engine. In the ‘engine,’ you have:
- Skills to represent your experience (example: Close Combat, which is fighting with fists, knives, etc)
- Attributes to represent your innate capabilities (example: Physique, which measures how physically powerful you are)
- Conditions to represent damage, problems, or hinderances (example: Wounded, which is a physical condition that reduces your physical dice pool by 1)
- Test Rolls. A player combines an appropriate Skill and Attribute to determine the number of dice to roll, roll those dice, and look for any 6s.
- Results. If there is even a single 6, the player succeeds at whatever they are doing.
- Pushing a roll allows you to re-roll all the dice that were not a 1 or a 6.
Again, this is a review and not a deep dive into the mechanics of this game – but largely what you see above is what matters. Investigators are not superheroes, 6 conditions stand between them and certain death – and when you’re rolling 4 dice hoping for a 6, those conditions can stack up pretty quickly.
I’d like to touch on the general design, presentation, and consideration built into the structure of Vaesen. As a layout artist and developmental editor, I’m extremely cognizant of breaks in flow when reading TTRPGs. Vaesen is not a tiny book, it’s over 200 pages long, and most of those pages are covered in example gameplay excerpts to help people understand the rules. During our playtest of Vaesen, we came across numerous situations in which finding the pertinent information in the sparsely-packed two-column single-color text was a downright headache. I highly suggest utilizing the CTRL + F search functionality of the PDF over trying, ineffectually, to flip through the physical book, for sure.
The art, typeface, and presentation are all expertly done, in my opinion, so if the layout fits the logic of your brain, you’re in for quite a treat with Vaesen in terms of usability (like those rare few who can navigate Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition without a sherpa and a sundial). Others may languish when trying to flip through the samey-looking pages of deep text until they familiarize themselves with the full-art splashes that add an explosion of life and color to the book.
Where It Soars
Many TTRPGs do not capture the emotion and theme of their subject matter anywhere near as cleanly as Vaesen. When your investigator uses their cane to trip a fleeing pickpocket, only to watch the child’s body scatter into countless roaches, leaving clothes behind in the damp streets of a fishing village, you are hooked into the narrative of the story. In our playtest game, Dance of Dreams, our investigators went to a shoddy little village deep in the woods, befriended a cast of weird characters sheltering from the rain inside an inn, nearly beat a man to death for abusing his wife and child, saw a shadow puppet play made by a ghost, unearthed a body while being harried by mind-controlled villagers, and delivered it to sanctified ground in the nick of time to save the family and neighbors from the rage of an undead spirit – all while leaning into those tropes and stereotypes 1800s Europe draws out of you.
Vaesen sets a stage for your investigators to feel as though they’re from another time, another place – with their old-world revolvers, cases of laudanum, horse-drawn carriages, and oil burning lanterns, it’s easy to separate yourself from the here and now and embrace what Vaesen is presenting to you.
Somewhere In The Middle
Each Vaesen has an interesting and unique methodology to how it functions: how it grows or weakens in power, what it wants, what it can do, how it interacts with the world, and how to ultimately be rid of it (destroy it, send it home, lull it back to sleep, etc).
What really worked for me was the feeling that we were under a time pressure – we NEEDED to find out what this thing was and get rid of it or innocent people would get hurt. The clicking of the clock, knowing that Vaesen was growing in power the more time we wasted, made us desperate toward the middle part of the game in a way that really worked for me. We were prepared to put the barrel of a pistol in someone’s mouth it if meant actually getting answers – something we never thought we’d be willing to do at the onset of the story. Putting that kind of change in your character is a marvel and should be commended!
But, that high was met with a pretty steep low when we realized: we had no earthly idea what to DO to stop the Vaesen even when we uncovered what it was, who was responsible, what it wanted, and where it was… We just floundered at it for half an hour taking guesses as to what might work. From salt and prayers to forgiveness and love, posing as its long-gone family, threatening it with endless darkness – there was no resource or methodology for us to get a better understanding of what to do outside of some rolls to recall information, which always seemed to fail. It was very stressful and a bit irritating.
I cannot overstate how much the Year Zero Engine sucks all of the life out of this game for me. There’s some unspeakable hell that is conjured when your ex-military investigator with a +3 Precision, a +2 Ranged Combat, a +2 revolver, and a +2 circumstance bonus rolls 9 dice in an attempt to shoot a lamp and gets no sixes. Then Pushes the roll, threatening to shoot the wrong person on accident, re-rolls all 9 dice, and gets no sixes again, shooting a fellow investigator in the shoulder and nearly killing them.
There is no unshakable bitterness like having your +3 Empathy +3 Observation investigator see if a little girl is scared and get four sixes off of six dice, a full three extra successes than we needed. What happens to those successes? According to page 43 of Vaesen “You impress yourself as well as others, get more than you wanted, or win renown for your skillfulness.” You are now the world champion little girl soothsayer, I suppose?
No matter what we did in terms of the narrative, which I LOVED, I never felt empowered by my skill as a player, thoughtfulness, planning, or understanding because of the YZE dice mechanics. It might have been one of the worst experience I’ve ever had with a dice system in a TTRPG in my entire life – despite my world famous GM, despite my fantastic party of roleplayers, despite some good luck on certain rolls – the entire enterprise could have been a coin flip and I’d have felt as in control of my character. A coin flip in which the more you fail, the worse your chances of the coin landing on heads, because conditions are ruthless and burn out all the advantages in your dice pool faster than a campfire melts a stray candle.
Anticlimatic, unsatistfying, and shockingly simple compared to the complex and esoteric plot surrounding it, the dice system just didn’t do it for me.
I feel that with some readjustments to the layout – primarily cleaning up some longer example prose and rearranging sections to flow better, Vaesen could not be more well made. It’s dripping with theme and style the likes of which you won’t get anywhere else, and it corners a niche market (1800s speculative supernatural fiction) that scratches an itch most “modern” TTRPG settings fall short of.
The Year Zero Engine integration is a sucking chest wound in an otherwise enjoyable dinner guest, though, and I wish its integration could be more well-developed to fit the themes of these League of Extraordinary Gentleman meets Sherlock Holmes inspired stories. As it stands, players have very few ways to enforce their characters’ will on the story that’s not locked behind a pretty unreliable and soul-sucking dice mechanic.
What did you think of Vaesen? Was it your cuppa? ‘Id it batty-fang the door-knocker off yer ol’ professor??? Let me know, because if you can convince me to play this system again, I’ll swallow my hurt and pride to give it another shot – i’ll even post an update to announce if it changed my mind at all!